I’m continuing reading and blogging through Ben Witherington’s book What Have They Done with Jesus?, and have just finished chapter 3. This chapter discusses the person of Jesus. I would like to remind readers again that I’m blogging the experience of reading the book and not reviewing it. Thus my impressions result from where I am in reading at the moment. (The previous post in this series is here.)
One might get the idea that Dr. Witherington is simply telling the story of Jesus and his companions as it can be extracted from the canonical materials. A large portion of both chapters 2 and 3 simply catalog what we have and add some speculation–educated speculation, but nonetheless still speculation.
What seems to be missing here is the reasoning behind historical conclusions about these individuals. Toward the end of each chapter, however, we begin to get the point. Witherington is developing a profile of the people who are recorded as eyewitnesses to the life and most importantly (I believe) the resurrection of Jesus.
Witherington is not a fundamentalist, and deals with the text that would not be possible under most common definitions of inerrancy. On page 59, for example, he says:
. . . In this narrative [the call of Simon] the first words Jesus is said to have spoken to Simon are “You are Simonson of John; you shall be called Cephas.” It is likely that the Fourth Evangelist, in order to introduce his dramatis personae up front, has moved this tradition to this spot, for Simon received this nickname much later in the ministry, according to the synoptics. . . . (What Have They Done With Jesus?, p. 59)
I would note two things. From the point of view of more liberal scholarship, this places a greater historical weight on the fourth gospel than many would place on it. From the point of most who accept inerrancy, it would have John either in error or lying, because Simon receives the name “Peter” at a different point in history. (Some could quite comfortably accommodate this issue by appealing to the literary genre and noting that readers probably did not expect chronological accuracy in such a document.
Thus Witherington is by no means in the hard-line conservative camp that essentially constructs a history of Jesus based on harmonization of every detail of the gospel accounts.
He carries on with a considerable discussion. Many readers will be interested in his discussion of “upon this rock” from Matthew 16, which Witherington does believe apply to Peter, but in particular to Peter who is confessing. He suggests that while in that text it particular it may have meant Peter himself, it can be extended to all those who make a similar confession.
So why are we going into all this detail with regard to Peter? It is because of this question that I’ve titled my blog post as I have. Witherington moves from the discussion of who Peter is historically to making the assertion that Peter was in a position to know what Jesus confessed about himself in his lifetime. Thus he says:
. . . These stories about interconnections within the inner circle must make some sense, and they bear a telling witness to the fact that Jesus was seen and confessed as a messianic figure both before and after his death on a cross. No one knew this better than Peter, and no one would have been more vehement in rebuttal of the suggestion that Jesus had not presented himself in an exalted and messianic ight during his ministry. He became a shepherd of Jesus’s flock for a good reason: he knew the Story, he belieed in the Christ, and he accepted his commission. In the next chapter we will see what the post-Easter Peter has to say to us about these things. (ibid. 76)
Update: It looks like my conclusion is missing. Thus far I see substantial profiles of claimed eyewitnesses presented without sufficient basis for the claim that the canonical gospels themselves are historically reliable at this level of detail. I’m hoping this will be covered further down the line.